If you’re still unsure, have a look at Chapter Two while you decide ;)
Suns and Waters
KEEPING UP WITH a sun god was surprisingly difficult, Khennik soon discovered. He’d initially expected that either he or Estenarven would need to carry Eiryah as he – hopefully – led them to the others. The other human gods Khennik had met, Litha and Gaelam, had both flown on the backs of dragons in the past instead of making their own way. Which was entirely appropriate since they were, after all, human gods and had no wings of their own.
Unless they were Heirayk, who barely waited for Khennik to emerge from the crack in the ground before unleashing a pair of flaming wings and shooting into the sky.
“He really does like drawing attention, doesn’t he?” Estenarven murmured, as both dragons tilted their heads back, watching the blazing ball grow smaller as it climbed higher and further away.
Khennik grunted in agreement.
Estenarven shaded his eyes as Eiryah became a very distant spot in a bright blue sky. “Do you think he’s planning on coming down again anytime soon or should we fly up to join him?”
“He’ll have to come down a little at some point,” Khennik said grumpily, stretching into his full dragon form and drinking in the less divine kind of sunlight. “Else he’ll end up leaving the world altogether.” Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but Khennik would rather Eiryah showed them to the others first. “Come on.” He bounded up the highest of the shattered stone shards and pushed into the sky.
At which point Eiryah came rushing back towards them, as furiously fast as a comet. Estenarven flattened against the ground as the whooping god swooped over his head, raising steam from his scales. Spinning away, Eiryah headed towards Khennik.
Teeth bared, he rolled aside just in time to avoid a scorching and barely resisted the urge to swat the irritating deity onto the ground where he belonged. “Stop that!”
Eiryah laughed and swept around them in a dazzlingly swift circle, sweeping his flaming wings in broad strokes like an enormous sunbird. “I can’t stop now, we haven’t even started. Come along, Estenarven, into the air with you.” He rushed low over the Boulderforce’s head again before spiralling off across the desert.
Shaking his head, Estenarven picked himself up from the dirt and leapt skywards, joining Khennik as they soared over the rapidly heating ground. While they scanned the skies for any sign of their ridiculous guide, the Boulderforce chuckled.
Khennik eyed him warily. “We can still find them ourselves, you know,” he muttered. “We don’t need him.” Or his questionable brand of help.
Estenarven shook his head. “We do,” his aide corrected softly. “We’re getting nowhere on our own. We need to find them. They need us to find them, and Eiryah is our only hope.”
“Yeah!” The sun god spiralled above their head like a flaming corkscrew. “That’s me. Hope. Brightness. New day. New beginnings. Sunshine. Sunbathing. Sun-dried tomatoes. All the best things are connected to the sun. Right, Khennik?”
For the first time in his life, Khennik fervently wished he wasn’t a Sunlord.
Eiryah laughed as he paused long enough to study Khennik’s expression. “Let’s go before the wind changes and Old Sourscales’ face cracks.” Eiryah whooped once more and shot across the desert with all the speed and finesse of a flaming catapult projectile.
Estenarven snorted and poked Khennik with his tail. “Come on, Sourscales, our friends are waiting.”
It was the only thing his aide could have said that would make Khennik willing to follow Eiryah. Estenarven was right; their friends needed them. Swallowing his irritation, Khennik beat his wings and prepared to race a sun god across the burning desert sky.
* * *
HOT. SO HOT. Mastekh felt like he was cooking inside his scales as he followed Nera over yet another stretch of seemingly endless dryness. The sun was barely above the horizon, but was already close to unbearable. Water, he needed water. It was a basic requirement for every living creature, but Flowflights needed it more than most. He was so parched his mouth tasted of ash, his scales felt like chalk and his claws were beginning to crack. He couldn’t go on much longer.
Water was everywhere inside his head. He could hear it trickling, imagined it washing against his belly, felt it flowing through his veins. His senses kept sparking, telling him that water was here, it was close, right within reach. But there was no water. He looked down at the world below and saw only barren emptiness. A desiccated wasteland. Nothing but brown dust paling to almost white where the sun burned strongest.
Mastekh knew how the rocks felt. He was so thirsty he could have cried, if only he had the moisture to form tears. Every wing beat hurt, the lack of water turning his bones fragile enough to crack if he put them under too much pressure.
It was no good, he couldn’t keep doing this. He looked down, but the ground seemed further away than ever, blurred into a featureless smudge by his failing senses. He had to land. He didn’t even care if there was anywhere to shelter down there. He had to get out of the sky, away from the sun. There might not be any water waiting for him below, but at least he could cover up down there, close his eyes and pretend he wasn’t evaporating with every passing moment.
He had to land.
Mastekh folded his wings, whining at the effort it took to force his stiff muscles and sun-dried tendons to retract. His bones sighed with relief and he shut his eyes as he dropped limply from the sky.
TARRO’S SHOUT OF alarm startled Nera away from scanning the ground for a suitable resting spot.
Mastekh was falling.
“Maegla have mercy!”
“The egg!” Teka shrieked, plunging into a dive.
Tarro and Ervan mirrored them on Mastekh’s other side and everything turned into a chaotic cacophony of shouts and shrieks as they tried to rouse the dragon. Wings tucked in tight, Teka’s precious egg still clutched to his chest, Mastekh looked peaceful as he plummeted towards the ground.
They weren’t too high up, only two hundred feet or so, but they were falling fast and Mastekh wasn’t as strong as he used to be. Other dragons might shake off such a rough landing, but the Rainstorm looked so frail after three days in the desert that Nera feared this landing would shatter him.
“Mastekh! Mastekh!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, even as Teka darted beneath the dragon.
Nera’s shouts became screams as the ground rushed towards them with the promise of a deadweight dragon landing on their backs.
“Teka, what are you doing?”
“The egg!” her miryhl shrieked back. “Get the egg!”
Sweet Maegla, did the bird ever think of anything else? Mastekh was about to die and all Teka cared about was her wretched egg.
“The egg! The egg!” the miryhl shouted, and something in Mastekh must have heard because his tightly clenched arms loosened just a fraction, spilling the oversized egg into the air.
“Catch it!” Teka shrieked, opening her wings to brake.
“No!” Nera cried, even as her hands connected to the smooth shell.
Too late, Teka’s blasted egg-protecting instincts doomed them all. Mastekh’s falling weight struck the top of Nera’s head, knocking her sideways as the dragon clipped Teka’s wing and sent them spinning right into Ervan’s path.
Both miryhls screeched as Ervan swerved to evade, while Teka continued to whirl wildly out of control.
Head pounding, world spinning, Nera clutched the egg against her churning stomach and curled over the top of it. Even in the middle of all the chaos, she couldn’t help noticing that the egg seemed to have changed shape, growing lighter and more elongated, making it easier for her to hold. Although she might have been imagining things due to panic.
“Whuh? Huh?” Mastekh woke with a start and added his own screams to the furore, shooting out his wings with barely enough time to break the last beat of his fall. He hit the ground with a crackling thump, sending dust pluming into the air.
Freshly slapped by the dragon’s wing and blinded by the dust, Teka flipped over backwards and struck a tall rock. Nera groaned as her own back took most of the impact, and they slumped to the ground in a limp heap.
Only Ervan managed to land on his feet, but even he came in too fast, skidding to a halt and cursing as the jagged ground cut up his toes. On his back, Tarro bent over her saddle and threw up, spitting and coughing at the whirling dust.
Nera closed her eyes and tried to assess her injuries, but didn’t get further than her pounding head. It had barely recovered from the she last time she’d tried to save Mastekh. Then she’d tripped over him and slammed it into a rock; this time he’d cut out the middle action and slammed straight into her himself.
She opened her eyes and immediately shut them again, as the dust cloud made them sting. Everything was still whirling about anyway. Better to sit still for a moment and focus on her breathing.
Her fingers flexed over the smooth surface of the egg, which seemed as strong and sturdy as ever, if a little warmer than she was used to. Even though it was just an egg, Nera couldn’t help imagining that it seemed extremely relieved not to be broken. So was she, so should they all be.
At least, she hoped they all should.
Recalling her former role as a lieutenant, she called out, “Is everyone all right?”
Well, she tried. When she breathed in to raise her voice, she took in a lungful of dust and ended up coughing instead, until her fumbling hands found the water bottle tied to her saddle. It was her last one and contained barely a trickle, but she used it to wet her lips and rinse the worst of the dust from her mouth. Cupping her hand over her lips, she tried again.
“Is everyone all right?”
A series of groans answered her, which was less helpful than she might have hoped.
“Teka?” she asked, although she could feel her miryhl stirring beneath her.
“Still here,” her eagle croaked, voice raw from all the screaming.
“Here,” her Rider replied, before groaning and throwing up again. “Gods, we are definitely both here.”
Which left one more, the one that worried Nera the most. Swallowing a few times, trying to bring some moisture to her ravaged throat, she called, “Mastekh?”
A gasp replied and Nera began fumbling at her straps.
“Wait, Nera, what?” Teka spun around, squinting through the settling dust as Nera finally freed herself from the saddle and slid to the ground. The egg rolled down with her, landing with a secure thud in a pile of crumbly earth.
“Mastekh.” It was the only thing she could say, the only thought she could cling to in her aching head. Letting go of Teka, she stepped towards the crumpled heap of dragon.
And dropped straight to the ground.
“Nera!” Teka bounded ahead of her, beak down, nuzzling her face. “What is it? Where are you hurt?”
Nera supposed she should feel flattered that her miryhl was showing concern for something other than her egg for once, but Teka’s attempts at comfort were making her dizziness worse. Nor did she want to think about her injuries or the way her legs didn’t feel quite right. Pins and needles prickled spasmodically up and down each one, from her ankles to the tops of her thighs, but beyond that she couldn’t really feel them.
Blessed Maegla, she couldn’t feel her feet.
Until Teka stepped on one of them and shot a bolt of fire right up the middle of Nera’s spine.
“Off! Get off me! Get off!” Nera shrieked so loudly that Teka leapt backwards.
Wings flapping, the miryhl set down several paces away, eyes wide, wings falling slack by her sides. She looked stunned.
Nera felt too horrendous to apologise. Instead it was her turn to bend over and throw up, the sudden pain in her back shooting out to every part of her body. Mighty gods, no wonder she’d fallen before taking a step. Dragging her sleeve across her mouth, she looked back at where she and Teka had landed and blinked at the rock, twice the size of herself, which was now cracked neatly down the middle. Sweet Maegla, it was a miracle she hadn’t cracked in half herself.
“LT? LT!” Tarro knelt by Nera’s side, frantic as she looked her officer over. “Where are you hurt? What can I do? Talk to me!”
Mastekh gasped again and Nera snapped back to attention.
Gritting her teeth against the pins and needles now jabbing at every part of her body, she offered a hand to her Rider and tried not to whimper when Tarro took it in a tight grip.
“Mastekh,” she half-growled, nodding at the crumpled dragon.
Pale beneath the dust streaking her sweaty face, Tarro nodded back and hauled Nera to her feet, catching her with an arm around the waist when she would have crumbled to her knees. Clumsy and halting, they staggered over to where Mastekh’s head lay over a shattered rock of his own.
The poor dragon was completely white now, all trace of green gone, bleached by the sun, leached by the desert. His eyes opened as Nera sagged into the dust beside his face. She placed a hand against his cheek, hating how chalky his scales felt beneath her sweating palm.
“Mastekh,” she whispered.
“W-water,” the dragon rasped.
Closing her eyes against a fresh rush of dizziness, Nera turned to Tarro. A flask was pushed into her hand, but even without checking Nera knew it was almost empty. Only the slightest sound of sloshing came from inside as Nera opened her eyes and prised out the cork.
She poured it over Mastekh’s forehead anyway, a pathetic trickle that barely made a dent in the dust coating the Rainstorm’s white scales. Feeling helpless, she massaged it in, hoping to bring her friend some relief, however temporary.
Mastekh closed his eyes and sighed. “Water.”
“Yes,” Nera murmured, barely resisting the urge to cry. She didn’t need to look at Tarro to know it had been their last flask. It had been two days since they’d last found a waterhole, and even with strict rationing, they hadn’t been able to eke their supplies out. The desert was no place for a Flowflight. It was no place for any of them.
Nera forced herself to face the truth: they were doomed.
“W-w-water,” Mastekh said again, and Nera bowed her head in defeat. There was no more water. It was over.
“Water,” Mastekh repeated, hauling himself to his feet.
Nera shuffled backwards. She’d thought the dragon too injured from his fall to ever move again. She’d thought this was it, that they were all going to die here. But once again, Mastekh proved there was more strength in his slender frame than most people suspected. His wings were bent at odd angles and he was definitely favouring his front right leg, but Mastekh still managed to stagger forwards, dragging his wounded body over the broken ground.
“Water,” he rasped, and Nera feared the poor thing’s mind had finally snapped. She glanced at Tarro and the miryhls, but they all looked as hopeless as she felt. There was no water, only rocks, dust and leagues upon leagues of crumbling desert.
“W-w-water,” Mastekh sighed, and fell headfirst into a hole.
The Riders and miryhls yelped, Tarro helping Nera again as they hurried forwards.
It wasn’t a hole – or, rather, it wasn’t just a hole. It was a crack in the broken earth that had widened to form something like a cave. A cave with a pool of water at the bottom.
“Blessed Maegla,” Nera whispered, sliding out of Tarro’s suddenly slack hold. She sat in the dust, the sun burning against her throbbing head and aching back, watching as Mastekh slithered into a pool big enough to swallow the Rainstorm. A layer of dust rose to the surface as he vanished into the depths.
Whooping, Tarro skidded down the slope after him and even the miryhls slid inside the cave, sitting on their tails, feet out, wings spread, like playful ravens on a snowy mountainside. Nera watched them play, her myriad aches and pains fading at the sight of their frolicking.
Because none of them were dead. They’d survived the fall. They’d found water in the desert.
They were alive.
Overcome by everything, Nera bent over her tingling legs and cried with relief.
* * *
KHENNIK WAS SWEATING. It wasn’t something he was used to, and he added it to the list as yet another thing to be annoyed with Eiryah over. He would be certain to give the god a piece of his mind about it all later, when he wasn’t working so hard and could actually breathe enough to speak.
Keeping pace with the wretched sunspot was blasted hard, made all the worse by the way Eiryah kept flipping onto his back to chivvy them along, fiery wings flapping at a lazy pace. The god was clearly enjoying himself as the two dragons puffed and flapped like blacksmith bellows in a desperate attempt to keep up.
It wasn’t the speed that bothered Khennik – much. He wasn’t the fastest dragon in the Overworld and had never fooled himself into imagining he was. How could he be when Swiftwings, Highflights and Skystorms controlled their air elements with such finesse? He wasn’t the fastest Sunlord or even Blazeborn. But he wasn’t exactly slow either and he didn’t appreciate the way Eiryah made him feel as if he was.
He didn’t appreciate Eiryah at all, and the arrogant way he went about everything just made it all worse.
“Come along, dragons!” the sun god laughed. “Surely you can do better than this. I know you’re a Stoneheart, Estenarven, but I thought you were a bold, brave Boulderforce, not a stodgy old Earthdrake! And Khennik, you’re a Blazeborn elder! Show me your fire!”
Khennik would gladly have done that if it wouldn’t have been a complete waste of power. Not even the hottest dragon flame would make Eiryah feel anything more than a light tickle. How could it when the god’s power came directly from the sun? He might look like a flame at times and fit in seamlessly with the Sunlords, but his heat came from an altogether hotter place.
Khennik fervently wished Mastekh was here with them. Flowflight was probably the only Clan capable of making the arrogant sunspot flinch, if only for a moment.
But Mastekh wasn’t here, and the only way Khennik was likely to see him again was by following this very same sunspot. Swallowing his anger, he ignored Eiryah’s silly insults and channelled his frustration into his wings.
Alongside him Estenarven appeared to be doing the same, even though the poor Boulderforce shimmered with exertion. Sweat was not a natural state for a dragon. It took an awful lot of effort and stress to force moisture out from beneath their hardened scales, but despite the strength and endurance the Stonehearts were famed for, speed had never been their forte. They were too heavy, for one thing, too big for another. Estenarven simply was not intended to fly so swiftly, and certainly not for such an extended period. If they weren’t careful, Eiryah’s foolish arrogance was going to kill them both.
“Such a lovely day for a flight,” Eiryah said, looping lazily around them, his vast wings skimming close enough to Khennik’s tail to make him hiss. Estenarven was too tired to react even that much, although the proximity to Eiryah’s heat must have been excruciating for him. “I love nothing more than skimming across the desert on a cloudless day. It’s so much nicer than the rest of the Overworld. Clear of clouds, rich with thermals, full of heat. Delicious.”
Khennik could think of a few choice things to say to that, especially when it was widely accepted that the human gods were the ones who’d cast the Cloud Curse in the first place. If the Mighty Heirayk didn’t like clouds, maybe he should have thought about that before he and his fellow gods covered the world with them.
“Yes, I do love to drift out here in the peace and the quiet, but it’s equally fun to be joined by friends. Especially friends who are tracking other friends. Now that is…” Eiryah broke off and twisted himself upright, raising his wings to soar above the dragons until he hovered in the sky. Fire-bright feathers stroked through the air, but Eiryah’s body was still, his head tilted to one side. “Um.”
“Whuh?” Estenarven questioned, puffing hard as he and Khennik spread their wings and glided up to the god.
Khennik’s wings burned and he dreaded the moment when he would have to flap again. By the Family, it had been centuries since he’d flown so hard, and never for so long. He hoped the others would be in good shape when they found them, because he and Estenarven were going to be useless.
Eiryah glided forward a wing beat and stopped again, straightening up and turning in the air. “Hmm.”
“Is there a problem?” Khennik asked. It was an effort to get the words out without panting, but he managed, just about. Family forbid he might show this sunspot a hint of weakness.
“No.” Eiryah flashed them his brightest smile. “No problem at all.”
Khennik shared a sceptical glance with Estenarven.
“It’s just, uh, a temporary, um… Ah. No. Wait… Hmm.”
“You’ve lost them, haven’t you?” Estenarven rumbled, having recovered enough to speak.
“Lost them?” Eiryah laughed. “No, of course I haven’t lost them. I know exactly where – well, maybe not exactly, but I – No, I… Um, maybe?”
Khennik simply didn’t have it in him to explode. He could only roll his eyes to the sky, begging the Family for patience. “I thought you could find anything.”
“I can!” Eiryah shot back defensively. “I can find anything!”
“Anything under the sun,” Estenarven reminded them.
They fell quiet, gliding in thoughtful silence.
“Do you have a last known location for them?” Khennik asked, after a long moment.
“Yes,” Eiryah admitted, somewhat sullenly. “Roughly.”
“Take us there,” Khennik ordered.
“And then what?” the grumpy god grumbled, either unhappy at being told what to do or more likely resenting that he was no longer the saviour-in-chief.
Estenarven smiled. “Then this stodgy old Earthdrake will show you what a real Stoneheart can do.”
Khennik smiled smugly at his aide. Because if their friends weren’t under the sun, they had to be under the earth. Estenarven would find them – hopefully before he passed out.
Eiryah sighed heavily as if they were placing a great burden on him, then shot forward like a blazing comet once more.
“Come on, dragons!” Khennik looked at Estenarven; Estenarven looked at Khennik. Sighing, they forced their aching wings into movement again.